History of The Nutcracker Ballet

Learn about the Famous Ballet

Mikhail Baryshnikov In 'The Nutcracker'
Mikhail Baryshnikov In 'The Nutcracker'. Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

Over 100 years old, The Nutcracker Ballet was first presented at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, on December 17, 1892. Peter Tchaikovsky, the famous Russian composer, was commissioned by mastermind choreographer Marius Petipa to compose the ballet, score based on Alexandre Dumas’s adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." Tchaikovsky and Petipa had previously worked together on another classical ballet, Sleeping Beauty.

The first production of The Nutcracker was a failure. Neither the critics nor the audience liked it. Even though Czar Alexander III was delighted with the ballet, The Nutcracker was not an instant success. However, the ballet gained popularity with future productions, especially in the United States.

The first performance of The Nutcracker in the United States was by the San Francisco Opera Ballet, in 1944. The production was directed by William Christensen. However, by changing a few characters, choreographer George Balanchine brought new life to The Nutcracker. His 1954 production for the New York City Ballet popularized the ballet, establishing it as a holiday tradition. Many of the versions of The Nutcracker performed today are based on the version created by George Balanchine.


During a holiday party, a young girl named Clara is presented with a beautiful toy nutcracker from her strange uncle. Clara is delighted with the unusual present until her brother becomes jealous and breaks it. Her uncle magically repairs the toy to Clara's delight. After the party, she falls asleep clutching it. Her dream then begins. She awakens suddenly, stunned by the events she sees happening in her living room. The Christmas tree has grown to an enormous size and life-size mice are scampering around the room. Fritz's toy soldiers have come to life and are marching toward Clara's nutcracker, which has also grown to life-size. A battle is soon underway between the mice and the soldiers, led by the giant Mouse King. The nutcracker and the Mouse King enter an intense battle. When Clara sees that her nutcracker is about to be defeated, she throws her shoe at him, stunning him long enough for the nutcracker to stab him with his sword. After the Mouse King falls, the nutcracker lifts the crown from his head and places it on Clara.

She is magically transformed into a beautiful princess, and the nutcracker turns into a handsome prince before her eyes. The prince bows before Clara, taking her hand in his. He leads her to the Land of Snow. The two dance together, surrounded by a flurry of snowflakes. He transports her to the Land of Sweets where they are entertained.  They witness several dance performances including the Spanish Dance, the Arabian Dance, the Chinese Dance, and the Waltz of the Flowers. Clara and her Nutcracker Prince then dance together, in honor of their new friends. Clara awakens under the Christmas tree, still holding her beloved nutcracker. She thinks about the mysterious events that happened during the night and wonders if it was all just a dream. She clutches her nutcracker doll and delights in the magic of Christmas.